Remember them? Those small, slim paperbacks your father and grandfather used to read. Novels with titles like No Orchids for Miss Blandish, Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Farewell, My Lovely. True page-turners they were that punched their weight and usually got the job done in less than 250 paperback pages from the pens of such writers as, James Hadley Chase, Earl Stanley Gardner, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammet, Mickey Spillane, and the one and only, Raymond Chandler. These were hard-boiled thrillers, that Americans called ‘pocketbooks’. Novels that slipped easily into the inside pocket of your jacket to be read on your journey. These were the books and writers who started it all.
What happened to them? What happened to those lean, mean thrillers of yesteryear?
The good news is many are still in print. And most are now available in digital form on the internet. And you can find old copies when you go treasure hunting in used bookstores. Quite a number of them are lying on my bookshelf.
The bad news is, the writers are dead and gone, passed away. Another Raymond Chandler novel will never be written. The torch has been passed. New eras have begun.
Apart from anything else, modern thrillers have put on considerable weight. Like the human race, crime novels are getting obese. Mean they may be, but lean no more. And it’s not just the thrillers. The increasing flab seems endemic across the genres and even infects the ‘literary’, prize seeking, works. It’s especially evident in biographies.
Visit your local bookstore and look at the big, fat fiction books on the shelves. Look at the thickness of the spines, and ask yourself, as I do, what happened to brevity? Well, on the evidence it appears it’s no longer the soul of wit; it’s definitely out of favor. Wordiness is much in vogue.
Why is this? I don’t know. How? Let’s try to find out.
But before going further, let us concede that, as in everything, there are exceptions: Classics such as Middlemarch and War and Peace, immediately spring to mind along with The Brothers Karamazov, Vanity Fair, Time and the River and many other works. And from more contemporary fair, James Jones’ From Here to Eternity, and the wonderful Shogun, James Clavell’s 1100 page masterpiece, the reading of which occupied my summer of 1974. And there are other excellent big novels that without doubt punched every bit of their weight.
So, I did a little checking. I took down some old books, lean mean thrillers all. Ian Fleming’s From Russia, With Love, and Diamonds are Forever, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and The High Window, Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon, and Double Indemnity by James M. Cain. I paced these head to head beside newer works and made comparisons.
Printed in 1974, my copy of Ian Fleming’s From Russia, With Love is 41/2” x 7”. The novel’s word count is 77,865. It’s slim and fits easily in the jacket pocket.
Printed by Amazon in 2017, my own novel, The Sum of Things has a word count of 84,456. But, as Amazon doesn’t print 41/2” x 7” books, it is in 5” x 8” format. It’s longer, wider, and it’s a lot thicker than the Fleming book and won’t fit in your jacket pocket.
Fleming’s novel has 42 lines of text per page and is 208 pages long. My novel has 31 lines of text per page and is 385 pages in length. The font is larger and the space between the lines increased. They’ve increased the white space. They’ve also increased the page thickness. What about the writing?
Thickening the paper, raising the font size and increasing the line spacing will only give you so much. To really bulk up, one needs the writer’s involvement. Writers willing to overwrite and pad out their works, and editors who either don’t care or are more than willing to push authors into doing so.
I then compared the lean prose of the older books with David Balducci’s thrillers, Absolute Power, and Total Control. I must say that I enjoyed both those novels, though I felt at the time they were more than a little overweight. Absolute Power weighs in at 704 pages and 214,720 words. Total Control yields a whopping 720 pages 219,600 words. A sample of nine David Balducci stand-alone novels gives a mean average page length of 564 and a word count of 172,115 words. Big fat books indeed. Overwritten? I’d say so.
Scott Turow is a writer/lawyer of legal thrillers. His novels are notable for their courtroom duels of impressive drama. I enjoyed his first book Presumed Innocent immensely. I also liked his second novel, The Burden of Proof. He’s a fine author who knows his legal stuff and so he writes with skill about what he knows. But he overwrites. For him, I came up with an average of 477 pages and 141,615 words. Though the book was recommended to me, one of the things that put me off reading his novel The Laws of Our Fathers was the sheer size of it; 534 pages and 212,860 words.
It’s worth mentioning that Turow is a strong admirer the British writer, Graham Greene. Turow writes that Greene is the writer he long aspired to be. He feels that Greene’s novel, The Power and The Glory, is a novel he can’t live without. I read this book at school and I also became a Graham Greene fan. The Power and The Glory delivers the goods in 190 pages and 78,445 words. Lean and clean.
Tom Clancy was a well known high-tech windbag who overwrote and even padded out his work. I only read one of his, The Hunt for Red October. I saw the movie first then read the novel and enjoyed both. However, I felt the book at 656 pages and 200.080 words was seriously overblown.
Overwriting is not the province of bad writers. Some of the greatest writers have tended to do it. For many writers it comes with the territory; it’s natural, they can’t help it. It’s a chance to show off. Thomas Wolfe was such writer. The famed editor Maxwell Perkins fought hard with that brilliant and difficult man, and against the odds convinced Wolfe to cut 90,000 words from his epic, Look Homeward Angel, and in so doing, showed the importance of good editing.
Other writers reveal a keener affinity with brevity.
John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, launched his career and is in my view the finest spy thriller ever written. It’s done in 240 pages and 60,900 words.
That chilling and, unforgettable novel, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, delivers the goods in 180 pages and 58,145 words.
The mean average for Raymond Chandler’s seven novels yields 268 pages and 80,580 words.
James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity: 115 pages 35,075 words; a novella.
Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon: 217 pages 62,205words.
In classic thrillers, Stevenson’s Treasure Island takes just 156 pages and 47, 580 words.
Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, 140 pages and 53,940 words.
And though not a thriller, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a brilliant fast read at 180 pages and 54,900 words.
But, one may ask, if the overwriting is well done, should we mind? Well, since word inflation and padding run counter to the writer’s golden rule, make every word count, I feel we should mind. And that’s where editors come in. Or should come in.
So what happened to editing?
I recently read a handful of thrillers authored by Lee Child. Child is a heavy hitter, scoring over 70,000,000 sales worldwide. Seeking a new thriller writing experience, I got into him. I have to say I was expecting a new Elmore Leonard or Raymond Chandler. What I got was a shock. I was appalled at the banality of it and the almost total lack of editing. (see my blog, ‘Good Writing, Bad Writing and Market Forces’). Apart from anything else, Child seriously overwrites. He is on record as saying that his publishing house editors are reluctant to show him their notes. “They’re afraid to piss me off,” he said. That should not be the case.
To my mind, publishing house editors have become little more than cyphers today, employees who punch a time-clock, put in a shift and do as they’re told. And as today’s authors use word processors and online editing software, manuscripts should arrive on editor’s desks in a pretty clean state. So, armed with modern computer tools, copy editing seems to be little more than a walk in the park.
The more thorough, substantive or comprehensive editing, seems to be a thing of the past. It’s time-consuming and expensive. It demands greater effort, more involvement. It requires imagination. Publishing houses today possibly feel it’s a luxury they can’t afford. But it’s substantive editing that cuts most of the flab.
The days of Maxwell Perkins are over. He was the editor who discovered and nurtured. F. Scott Fitzgerald. It was under his disciplined guidance that Fitzgerald gave us The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night. Through Fitzgerald, Perkins met and worked with Ernest Hemingway and together they made history. Hemingway honored him by dedicating his Nobel Prize-winning novella, The Old Man and the Sea to Max Perkins. Perkins discovered James Jones and that association resulted in the novel, From Here to Eternity, and made Jones rich and famous. Such editors function as a writer’s coach and guide, teammate and even friend. And it has to be every writer’s dream to find such an editor.
But this becomes irrelevant if publishers decide that it’s big thick books they want. They call the shots. Remember this. When you buy a book, you naturally feel it’s the author’s creation; it’s not. It’s a publishing house product. It may be that the author doesn’t like the title. He or she may not like the cover artwork. The same goes for its bulk. The big books are a marketing ploy, editorial considerations are cast aside.
I’ve concluded that the ‘fat book’ syndrome commenced in America. And I find it rather apt that publishers in the land of big servings of fast food should believe, and encourage the public, that bigger is better. I gather they like to see their big shiny hardbacks in the windows and on the display tables of high-end bookshops. I once read that Ian Fleming would have difficulty getting published today on account of his lean, come to the point style. Today he’d be more or less forced to inflate. And so it goes. But do we need these crimes against brevity? Do we need massive doorstoppers? I don’t believe we do.